Back to the island...

Around the world, music arenas are being used as mass vaccination centres to protect millions from Covid-19. Auckland's Spark Arena, however, is one of the few that is able to play host to actual gigs these days, thanks to New Zealand's handling of the pandemic so far. Here, people are getting back to doing what people did before the pandemic: making plans with friends on a Friday night, buying each other overpriced drinks and forgetting themselves while singing along to their favourite songs in the dark. It's a massive privilege to do so.

And it's clearly one not lost on whoever's in charge of the PA system tonight, who chooses to blast out the late John Clarke's unofficial Kiwi national anthem 'We Don't Know How Lucky We Are' from the 1970s before Crowded House take to the stage. Tonight's gig is a sell-out, meaning around 12,000 people are packed under one roof to hear one the country's most-beloved bands, who have joined thousands of other Kiwis in returning home to the island since the pandemic began.

'To The Island' is also the name of the band's latest single from forthcoming album 'Dreamers Are Waiting', which marks a new chapter for a band whose latter years have been touched by tragedy following the deaths of drummers Paul Hester and Peter Jones, in 2005 and 2012, respectively.

Founding members Nick Seymour and Neil Finn are now joined by the latter's sons, drummer Elroy and guitarist and singer Liam, alongside keyboardist Mitchell Froom. Populating your band with your kids is a genius way to keep it looking fresh and youthful, helping Crowded House to avoid the pitfalls of so many long-in-the- tooth acts, whose arena gigs tend to suffer from self-indulgent noodling and bloated setlists.

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It also doesn't hurt that frontman Neil – now also a member of a little band called Fleetwood Mac – looks and sounds like he's been drinking from the fountain of youth himself. His silver-grey mop of hair is so big and full it's akin to a birds' nest that's been assembled from all the missing follicles atop the considerable number of bald blokes in the audience tonight.

The unmistakable, uplifting, crystal clear opening chords of 'Weather With You' set the tone for the night. Seymour – who like me has a better idea than most in the crowd as to what the rest of the world is going through at the moment having spent 2020 in Europe – is the visual embodiment of the joyful mood, bouncing around the stage in a black kilt looking like he's having the time of his life.

By the second song, a raucous 'Mean To Me' from the band's self-titled debut album, Neil Finn has already broken a guitar string, the sign of a good gig he says, before ripping into another classic from the same album, 'World Where You Live'. Having formed in Melbourne in 1985, Crowded House are now on the verge of releasing their first new album in a decade and tonight's set is peppered with a handful of snappy newies that are among the catchiest songs of the night, highlighting the band's continued vitality.

Overflowing with character and energy, 'Whatever You Want', 'Playing With Fire' and 'To The Island' all bode well for 'Dreamers Are Waiting', which comes out in June having been recorded in LA before the pandemic bit and finished off remotely in 2020. 'To The Island' is a particular earworm, with lyrics capturing the mood of many returning Kiwis these days: "You found me lost in the chaos and confusion / You said it's possible that we can be free."

Perhaps understandably given the amount of time since people were last able to do this, the Auckland crowd is a little rusty when it comes to mass singalongs and is slow to get to its feet, despite the punchiness of tracks like 'Whispers & Moans' showcasing the band's trademark, jangly guitars.

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It could well be that they're happy just to sit and enjoy the transportive, sparkling melodies of 'Pineapple Head', sounding evermore the antipodean cousin to The Beatles' 'Norwegian Wood'. Meanwhile, the pristine sound goes some way to making up for what arena gigs like these always lack in intimacy.

Curiously, it's not until "the moodiest song of the night," as Neil puts it, that the crowd does rise to its feet, as a lush 'Four Seasons in One Day' sweeps into 'Private Universe' against a dreamy on-screen backdrop that recalls the Milky Way. All of tonight's visuals are closely tied to nature and New Zealand's stunning landscapes, with the stage made up to look as if the band is playing in a volcanic crater.

The encore sees the band pay tribute to those on the frontline who helped make the band's tour possible by keeping cases of Covid-19 in New Zealand's community to a bare minimum. A stirring, piano-led cover of David Bowie's 'Heroes' is dedicated by the band to these people, the very best of us, who are ensuring New Zealand remains one of the few places on earth where being in the same room as thousands of other people is a reality, rather than the premise of a fever dream.

Heroes around the world continue to put themselves at risk in order to keep people safe and the Bowie classic will justifiably soundtrack depictions of the fight against Covid-19 in years to come. By then, hopefully such untroubled, escapist and euphoric communal live experiences like tonight's will have become commonplace again, not just in New Zealand, but around the world.

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Words + Photos: Nico Franks

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